Getting Off Opiates & Cannabis: Is Weed a Help?

Woman smoking

Marijuana, or cannabis, is becoming more common for medical use and withdrawal purposes in treatment centers. States across America are legalizing marijuana as further research is being published about its positive medical benefits.

Research has suggested that there are some benefits for using marijuana with opiate withdrawal symptom relief [1].

What It Does

Marijuana contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD) which have been shown to have medical benefits in clinical studies [1].

Effects of marijuana include relaxation, feelings of euphoria, and increased appetite. It can also have some adverse effects such as dry mouth, short-term memory loss, impaired motor skills, and paranoia.

In 2013, a study on the use of marijuana and its effects on opiate withdrawal symptoms found that marijuana decreased participants scores on the Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Scale (COWS) [1]. The COWS assessment is a tool that measures the severity of opiate withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal Symptoms from Opiates

When a person is beginning to withdraw from opiates, the withdrawal symptoms can be significant.

Teenage girl struggling with addiction

Many individuals can experience anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, nausea, depression, and irritability [2]. Other individuals may also experience diarrhea, hot and cold flashes or muscle aches and pains.

In studies that research the effect of marijuana on opiate withdrawal symptoms, marijuana was found to alleviate anxiety, relax muscles, ease sleep, and increase mood.

Other positive results included increased appetite and a reduction in nausea and stomach cramps.

Costs are High

In a 2013 study, there was over $72 billion in medical costs due to opioid abuse in the U.S. alone. The research study also shows that in states that do have medical marijuana legalized, there was a $165.2 million per year savings.

Currently, marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug according to the Federal government. In April 2016, Maine was the first state to consider adding opiate addiction to the list of benefits from medical marijuana but was denied by the health department [2].

Positive Cannabis Research

Dr. David Bradford looked at the use and benefits of medical marijuana and its effectiveness on opiate withdrawal symptoms. He researched the number of prescriptions filled by Medicare enrollees from 2010-2013 and found that older individuals who qualified for Medicare were using medical marijuana [2].

He also found that where marijuana was legalized, prescriptions for painkillers and other drugs significantly dropped up to 1,800 fewer prescriptions per year.

In 2014, a study published in 1JAMA reported that there was a 25% drop in deaths related to opiates in states that had legalized marijuana when compared to states who did not.

In a 2015 study, a 30% reduction in pain was seen with the use of cannabis compared to a placebo which suggests that cannabis interacts with pain receptors in the brain and spinal cord [2].

Also in 2015, Minnesota added chronic pain as one of the conditions that can be treated with medical cannabis.

Dr. Yasmin Hurd, Ph.D. of the Friedman Brain Institute, lead a study published in the Trends in Neurosciences, which showed improvements in opioid withdrawal symptoms and heroin-seeking behaviors [3].

He suggested that marijuana interferes with the brain’s reward center which can affect the rewarding effects of opioids.

How We Think It Works

Research suggests that the scientific workings behind cannabidiol effects are due to its modulation of the 5-HT1A receptor. This has been shown to be effective in other areas of study particularly in the treatment of children with epilepsy.

Woman in painWith these findings, cannabis has a lower risk for other significant side effects. Having less severe side effects is essential in treating withdrawal symptoms as it can help reduce recurrent use, relapse, etc.

The use of marijuana could also be helpful in opiate withdrawal symptoms because it does not induce overdose usage or death like opiates.

According to Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers have attempted to find various interventions for complete abstinence, but it is challenging to achieve for those who have relapsing addictions [4].

Some studies have shown that long-term dependence on marijuana can increase other drug cravings and increase the risk of relapse.

What is Happening Now

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), is funding projects to look at synthetic THC as a treatment for substance use disorders, and cannabidiol in the treatment of meth disorders and relapse prevention.

NIDA is also looking at the use of endocannabinoid as a potential therapy for alcohol use disorder and opiate withdrawal easement [4]

Having a way to control the withdrawal effects from opiates is a significant victory in the detoxification and recovery rates of those addicted to this substance.

Being able to have further clinical studies that can look at the effectiveness of marijuana as a way to ease the withdrawal symptoms and physically affect the brain structure could be a significant victory in the fight against opiate addiction.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.
Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is an Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Finch, M., Says, H. F., Says, M. F., Says, L., Says, K. J., Says, J. D., . . . Says, H. (2017, August 27). Marijuana Eases Opiate Withdrawal Symptoms. Retrieved December 09, 2017, from
[2] Medical Marijuana for Painkiller and Opioid Epidemic. (n.d.). Retrieved December 09, 2017, from
[3] Melville, N. A. (2017, February 6). Role for Cannabis in Treatment for Opioid Addiction? Retrieved December 12, 2017, from
[4] Scutti, S. (2017, May 17). New potential for marijuana: Treating drug addiction. Retrieved December 12, 2017, from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on March 13, 2018

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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.